Saturday, May 23, 2009

B: Easter VI (2009)

John 15:9-17

As many of you know, I began my ordained ministry some twenty years ago as a chaplain and religion instructor at a parochial day school.  The curriculum that I used to teach the first through fourth graders included a unit on what are known—although I didn’t use this term with them—as the “three cardinal virtues”, referring, of course, to faith, hope, and love.  We had done very well with faith and hope, and so it was finally time to talk about love.  So I asked them, “What would you say love is—what would be a good definition for love.”  I received quite a variety of answers to this question, but the consistent thread that ran through every class was something like this: “Love is when you like someone a whole lot.”  In other words, to put it in more grownup language, love is a particularly intense feeling of affection. As long as the feeling lasts, love endures. When the feeling dies, love vanishes. 

Our Lord says, unmistakably, “Love one another.” I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of intimidated by this command. I don’t always feel very loving. I don’t always feel an intense affection for everyone I meet, even my brothers and sisters in Christ. As long as we understand love to be a feeling, we are only going to end up frustrated, angry, and guilty. Some psychologists, you know, tell us that the average person is emotionally capable of keeping track of only about a hundred relationships. That may seem like a large number, but when you stop to add up family members—aunts, uncles, cousins, what not—and then add neighbors, co-workers, and friends, you can reach a hundred very quickly. Heck, I have 166 “friends” just on Facebook, and that’s without really trying!

So you can see the bind that we’re in. Christians are exhorted to love each other. St Anne’s parish alone—which, we have to admit, does not include all the Christians in Warsaw—has something in the neighborhood of 250 active members. None of us, though, is capable of feeling intense affection for this many people in addition to all the others in our lives, so it’s humanly impossible to keep the command to love one another.  Nothing is more damaging to one’s self-esteem than to be constitutionally incapable of carrying out a clear divine command. 

So . . . perhaps my students at St Luke’s school were wrong.  Perhaps love is something other than “liking someone a whole lot.”  Perhaps the sort of Christian love that we are called to is something more akin to what we tend to call “giving to charity.”  If this is love, then we certainly have ample opportunity to express it.  Every day we’re flooded with charitable appeals, from the United Thank Offering box sitting on the kitchen counter to Episcopal Relief & Development, to the United Way, and hundreds of thousands of other worthy causes. 

Yet, love-as-charitable giving dooms us to frustration just as surely as does love-as-affection. The world is always and ever-increasingly needy.  The demand for “charity” is a bottomless pit. The earthquakes, the wars, the floods, the droughts, the famines—all create an endless cycle of need that we simply cannot keep up with.  If we cannot satisfy the commandment to love one another until we have satisfied these needs, then we are hopelessly guilty, hopelessly incapable of    meeting such a requirement. 

Indeed, what failures we are! We are not able to love one another as God commands us to. We can’t feel intensely affectionate toward more than a hundred people, and we can’t give enough to charity to take care of all the victims of this world. God must not like us very much. 

Well  . . .  if loving is just a more intense version of liking, then it must logically follow that God doesn’t love us either!  Now we’re really in a conflict, because the scriptures assure us time and time again that God does love us, completely and irrevocably.  I hope God also likes us—although I suspect that there are times, at least, that he doesn’t.  But that’s beside the point, because his love for us is declared and demonstrated in the strongest possible terms. The measure of God’s love is declared and demonstrated in the act of the son of God’s laying down his life for us, for his friends, for those whom he loves.  “No one has greater love than this,” says Jesus in the fifteenth chapter of St John’s gospel, “than to lay down one’s life for those one loves.”  And in the same breath, Jesus says, “This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.” 

As I have loved you. 

How has Jesus loved us? As we saw two weeks ago, by laying down his life.  How, then, are we to love one another?  The same way: by laying down our lives. Christian love is not essentially about feeling, and it is not about giving to charity. Christian love is essentially about sacrifice, about laying down one’s life. In this time, and in this place, of course, it is extremely unlikely that any of us will be asked to spill our own blood for the sake of Christian love. But there are countless other opportunities for us to lay down our lives in ways that fall short of physical death. We lay down our lives when we yield a place of honor to someone who may be less deserving of it than we are. We lay down our lives when we perform a service but give up being recognized for what we’ve done.  We lay down our lives when we make an anonymous gift—and, I might add, we lay down our lives when we consent to graciously receive thanks and recognition for a gift or service when we really would rather remain anonymous. We lay down our lives when we devote time or attention or just a listening ear to someone who may not even be all that needy, but nevertheless asks this of us. We lay down our lives whenever we are generously willing to give the benefit of the doubt when it comes to assigning blame or responsibility.  We lay down our lives when we give up our right to be right, when we give up what is justly due us. We lay down our lives when we refuse to participate in petty quarrels and “turf” battles, especially within the church community. We lay down our lives when we give up the sublime and sweet pleasure of not being on speaking terms with, or feeling superior to, another member of the body of Christ. 

We have the opportunity to lay down our lives, to love one another as Christ loved us, every hour of every day.  When we realize and claim God’s love for us, manifested in Christ laying down his life, we are empowered to lay down our lives and let the love of Christ flow freely through us. This habitual laying down of our lives in love, every day, day after day, eventually benefits us, as well as those who are the objects of our love.  It allows us to identify with Christ in his death, which is at the heart of the process of the salvation of our souls. It allows us to experience that peace which passes all understanding. 

It may even—within the economy of God’s love and even his liking of us—enable us to feel deep affection for those we lay down our lives for, perhaps even more than a hundred of them! And, we may even, on occasion, be permitted to see the results of the sacrificial love which we offer. 

But whether or not we are ever allowed these momentary glimpses, we can rest in the assurance that we are indeed able to keep the command that we love one another.  It doesn’t demand that we feel anything. It doesn’t demand that we fix anything. It does invite us to claim the faith and the courage, both of which God offers us in his word and in his sacraments, to lay down our lives as Christ laid down his life for us.  Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.  Alleluia and Amen.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

B: Easter IV (5/3/09)

John 10:11-18

Life is uncertain and unpredictable. No surprise there, right? The longer we live in this world, the more concretely we know that reality. So, as a way of coping, we instinctively learn to hedge our bets, to keep our options open for as long as we can. A big part of the economic mess our country is in—indeed, the economic mess the world is in—comes from people trying to do just that: hedge their bets and reserve their options. That’s where the expression “hedge fund” comes from, and it’s the principle that lies underneath those incomprehensible financial instruments known as “derivatives” that are the culprits in our financial crisis. And it’s not at all hard to understand what makes people do this sort of thing. There is a cacophony of competing voices out there giving us advice, presuming to give us the straight facts on this or that, trying to make us trust them. It’s intimidating. I had a salesperson from Embarq call me the other night—of course, while I was trying to hold the phone in one hand and a dinner plate in the other while a cat tried to give me a backrub—this person from Embarq wanted me to switch our long distance to their plan, which is quite a bit more expensive than the plan we’re on presently, but she offered a nice discount on what we’re paying for our internet connection. I couldn’t keep it straight in my head, and when she said, no, she couldn’t send me an email with the details, I politely declined to continue the conversation. I was reserving my options, hedging my bets. We do this when we can’t see clearly why we should listen to one particular voice above all others.

Today we have one more voice inviting us to pay attention. It’s the voice of Jesus, the voice of him who calls himself the Good Shepherd. Jesus is calling us—that is, the Good Shepherd is calling his sheep—and saying “Follow me. I’ll protect you. I know where the green grass and the cool waters are. You can eat and drink all you need. I’ll watch your back.” Unfortunately, his voice is just one sound among many in our cacophonous environment. Some of us have responsibilities of work—and sometimes the literal voice of a boss—to pay attention to. Most of us have family members who are telling us things or asking us things or otherwise demanding our attention. Many of us have a difficult time tearing ourselves away from Facebook or Yahoo News or our favorite blogs and websites. And if all we do is watch TV or listen to the radio or drive around town we are still assaulted by various forms of advertizing that says, “Buy this. Do that. Think this way.”

It is in such an environment that the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd calls out to us. It’s confusing. It’s intimidating. So we hedge our bets; we reserve our options. We hold back on the strength of our commitment to him. We don’t ignore him. We don’t abandon him. We continue to follow him … but we do so at a safe distance. Like a savvy airline traveler, we know how far we are from the nearest exit row. In the back of our minds, we’ve planned our escape route, just in case we need to get away … to get away from it all … including the competing—indeed, the persistently competing—voice of the Good Shepherd. Our Christian faith, our Christian identity, our involvement with the church—these all make up one part of our lives, one part among many other parts, one good thing among a great many good things that we are involved in and weigh against one another.

But, what if we stop? What if we stop just for a moment? What if we stop and just listen, listen to Jesus? When we do so, we discover that there’s something just a little different about Jesus the Good Shepherd, something that distinguishes his voice from all the other competing voices, something that makes it stand out from all the rest, something that begins to make us feel safer and more secure about not hedging our bets with him, not needing to pay such close attention to keeping out options open. We discover one very important fact about the Good Shepherd, and it’s this: The Good Shepherd is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. In fact, the Good Shepherd has laid down his life for the sheep.

That’s it. I can’t make it any plainer. And it makes all the difference in the world. No politician is willing to lay down his or her life for the people they call to follow them. General Motors desperately wants to sell you a car, and they may end up losing their corporate life, but, if so, it won’t be because they laid it down willingly. Only the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. And in so doing, he demonstrates the extent of his love for us.

And in demonstrating that love, Jesus the Good Shepherd earns our trust. We see in his wild, untamed, unqualified, unrestricted, self-giving love the authentication of his credentials as the only One worthy of being followed with abandon. When an out-of-uniform law enforcement officer tries to interact with us officially, the first thing we want to see is his or her badge. The badge authenticates their position, and is the basis for their asking us to do something that any stranger off the street would not legitimately ask of us. The nail marks in the hands of the risen Christ constitute his badge. They constitute the basis on which he makes requests of us that are quite extraordinary, quite unlike anything anyone else could ask and get away with it. The willingness of the Good Shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep provides us with the assurance we need to follow him completely—no reservation, no hesitation, no hedging of bets, no quick scan for the exit row. It’s not that Jesus is simply more important to us than anything or anyone else. It’s that he becomes the lens through which we look at anything and everything else. His voice isn’t simply the loudest among many; it’s the one for which we tune out all others, listening to him first, and then hearing the others in the light of what we have heard from him.

In the words of the old Victorian hymn: “Jesus calls us o’er the tumult of our life’s tempestuous sea. Day by day his clear voice soundeth, saying, “Christian, follow me.”

Alleluia and Amen.